One of the most interesting, and promising, trends in the short story in the past few years is the blossoming of interest in the form in England.
It has long been an unchallenged assumption in short story criticism (what little there is) that English readers, critics, academics, and therefore publishers, have seldom, if ever, been interested in the short story—always preferring the bigger, more socially important, more encompassing, and more profitable, novel.
Because the short story does not deal with unified social values, the form seems to thrive best in societies where there is fragmentation of values and people. This fragmentation has often been cited as one reason why the short story became quickly popular in early nineteenth century America. In 1924, Katherine Fullerton Gerould said that American short story writers dealt with peculiar atmospheres and special moods, for America has no centralized civilization. "The short story does not need a complex and traditional background so badly as the novel does," argued Gerould.
Wendell Harris and Lionel Stevenson have suggested somewhat the same reason for the predominance of the novel in English literature. Stevenson points out that as soon as a culture becomes more complex, brief narratives expand or "agglomerate" and thus cause the short story to lose its identity. The fragmentation of sensibility did not set in in England until about 1880 at which time the short story came to the fore as the best medium for presenting this fragmentation. Wendell Harris also reminds us that the nineties in England were known as the golden age of the short story and notes how with the fragmentation of sensibility, perspective or "angle of vision "becomes most important in fiction, especially in the short story in which, instead of a world to enter as in the novel, the form presents a vignette to contemplate.
Harris has also noted that from Fielding to Hardy, fiction was defined in England as "a presentation of life in latitudinal or longitudinal completeness." This concept of narrative paralleled man's intellectual concern with society; thus the short story was thought to be insignificant in England until late in the nineteenth century when the appropriate vision for it arrived. The "essence of the short story" says Harris, "is to isolate, to portray the individual person, or moment, or scene in isolation detached from the great continuum at once social and historical, on which it had been the business of the English novel, and the great concern of nineteenth century essayists, to insist." As Frank O'Connor has noted, whereas the novel can adhere to the classical concept of a civilized society, "the short story, remains, by its very nature remote from the community romantic, individualistic, and intransigent."
However, thanks to the energy of such writer/editors as Nicholas Royle, writer/teachers as Ailsa Cox, and critic/reviewers as Chris Power—to mention only three that come to mind right away—the short story has begun to generate more interest in England. Short story prizes such as the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Prize, the BBC National Short Story Award, and the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize give short-story writers something to aim for, while such web/blog sites as the Short Review, The Short Story, Thresholds, and Short Stops keep short stories in the eye of the public. Under the masterful editorship of Ailsa Cox, Edge Hill University publishes a very fine academic journal Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. There is even a National Short Story Day (Dec. 21), and an annual Small Wonder Short Story Festival. With the exception of the U.S.-based International Short Story Conference which occurs once every two years, and the journal Short Story, there is nothing in America to compare with these efforts.
During the summer I have been reading the first five volumes of Best British Short Stories, ably edited by Nicholas Royle, and bravely published by Salt Press. I don't know how well the volumes for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 have been selling, but obviously well enough to carry on for five years so far. Royle has talked about how he started the series in a 2011 post on the website Thresholds. I thank him for providing me with several weeks to good reading this summer.
Now that I have read all the stories in the first five volumes (over 100 altogether), I plan to read them all again in the next couple of months and write blog posts on as many of them as I can, focusing on what makes them such fine examples of the short story form.
I have been commenting on Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories for several years on this blog. The O. Henry 2015 volume will be out in early September, and the 2015 volume of Best American Short Stories comes out in October. I will, of course be reading and commenting on those stories during the Fall.
And just to keep myself happily busy, I have started reading the six volumes of Best European Fiction (2010—2015). The 2016 volume is due out in early October. I will be posting blog essays on many of those stories before the end of the year also.
I know there is no guarantee that the stories in these "Best" volumes from American, England, and Europe really represent the "best" stories published in a given year. There are always human variables when something is labelled the "best," not the least of which who is doing the labelling, and who is doing the publishing. However, when a knowledgeable editor has the stamina to read hundreds of stories and make decisions about them, and when a brave publisher has the vision to publish a volume that he or she knows is not going to sell that well—then it is not a bad place to start reading the short story.
I hope you will read with me in the next few months as I try to be the best reader that these best stories deserve.